Interviews: Over Coffee

David Shepherd, MLA Edmonton- Centre | A Sit Down with JacanaBooks

"Steinbeck definitely had a huge impact on my view of the world. He had a strong sense of social justice." David Shepherd

David Shepherd is a skilled writer and dynamic speaker. He is a skilled and passionate politician. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, representing the constituency of Edmonton-Centre in 2015. He currently serves as chair of the standing committee on Legislative Offices and the Select Special Auditor  General Search Committee. He also serves as a standing member of the Standing Committee on Families and Communities. Mr Sherpherd leads an active lifestyle in Edmonton. He is an avid cyclist who has volunteered for the Edmonton Bike Coalition as a spokesperson and organiser. He enjoys live music, film and playing the piano.

David Shepherd is very active in the community, he is perceived in some circles as the MLA who cannot dance. A video of him dancing during a Black History Month event circulated on Facebook. The Premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley stole the show as she showed off her dance moves.  Mr Shepherd is very passionate about his community, constituency, politics and his heritage. He runs for re-election in the spring. 

JacanaBooks is grateful to Mr Shepherd for doing this with us.

"I decided I need to make use of the skills and abilities I have to inspire people by bringing politics back down to the community level and using the systems available to support people who’ve been traditionally marginalized and shut out". David Shepherd Quote of the Day.

For those who do not know you, how would you describe yourself?

I am a second-generation Canadian (my mother’s family came over from the Netherlands in 1948 and my dad up from Trinidad in 1967), born and raised in Edmonton. I love music. I spent 12 years working as a musician and studio engineer (I play piano and sing). I went back to school in 2010 and earned a BA in Professional Communication. I worked in that field at various levels of public service for about five years before I was elected in May 2015.

I have loved cycling every since I was a kid and try to ride year-round as my main means of getting around. I have a soft spot for cartoons, comics and graphic novels. My happy place is the Rocky Mountains and there’s no better feeling than heading into the backcountry and summiting a peak. I love live music and will travel to see concerts on my bucket list. I make awesome playlists.

We are a book blog. What was the last book gift you received? Please, can you share with our audience, some of the books you have in your library?

Books were my world when I was growing up and I still have a love for good stories. The last book that was given to me was The Political Brain – The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. I haven’t had the chance to start into it yet, but it’s a subject I’m very interested in – how emotions and psychology affect the decisions we make particularly in the political realm.

I have a pretty wide range of books in my library. I love graphic novels and have everything from Craig Thompson’s deeply thoughtful (and beautiful!) autobiography Blankets to some of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run on Black Panther.

I love bizarre & whimsical humour, so I have the full run of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently series. Years ago I fell in love with John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, so I’ve got a nearly complete collection of his writing including one of my all-time favourite books, East of Eden.

I like some sci-fi & fantasy, so I’ve also got some Neil Gaiman & Phillip K. Dick. I discovered Chyna Melville a few years ago and really enjoy the unique, inventive directions he takes with sci-fi tropes. And for classics in the genre, I’ve got some C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula Leguin & Tolkien.

What book/s are you reading now? Is there a book that shaped your philosophy and politics?

I have been working through a couple of books on human psychology and the flaws in how we think, make decisions and form our beliefs.  Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0 – Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives focus on this specifically in how we approach politics and Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong – Adventures in the Margin of Error looks at the reasons why we’re resistant to admitting when we make mistakes or may need to change our minds. They’re shaping my politics somewhat, but mainly in directions, I was already going.

Steinbeck definitely had a huge impact on my view of the world. He had a strong sense of social justice. Books like The Grapes of Wrath & In Dubious Battle have very strong themes of social justice and others like The Pearl and The Winter of Our Discontent have a lot to say about how power can corrupt those who aren’t careful about how they wield it. And there’s a bit from East of Eden that I still hold very close to my heart:

“Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be.

But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win…

…It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man.”

It’s the heart of a credo I’ve adopted for my life – that there’s no predestination or fate, no one controlling the world either to help or hurt me and that I myself have very limited control over a lot of what affects me. But one thing I can always control is how I choose to react to what happens to and around me and what kind of person I’m going to be.

"There’s an incredible concentration of power in the hands of just a few people and some seem intent on making as difficult and unattractive as possible for others to engage with it because they want to exercise that power unquestioned and unopposed". David Shepherd

Why politics?

I’ve always had a strong sense of social justice. I wasn’t very popular growing up. I got picked on a lot and so I developed a bit of sympathy for the underdog. I started following federal politics around 2011 when the Conservative Party of Canada formed a majority government and brought what felt like a really toxic atmosphere to federal politics – shunning the media, aggressively attacking anyone who disagreed with them, using massive omnibus budget bills to try and hide serious changes in legislation and using every tool at their disposal to avoid accountability. That got me started following a lot of different political journalists and columnists and thinking really hard about our political systems.

Around the same time, I started getting more involved in the board at my condominium building. I was bothered by how things were being done to favour some owners over others and started talking with some other owners. I ended working with them to call a special general meeting to remove some people from the board. We reconstituted it and worked to get things back on track. That was when I first realized I was good at organizing and advocacy.

The next year, in 2012, I started following provincial politics with the election of Premier Redford. Again, I saw what I felt were broken promises coupled with arrogance and entitlement that frustrated me. I saw a real lack of engagement in the general population because people seemed to feel the government didn’t listen and that there was no way for the average person to have an impact or see any change. I was just starting my studies in communications and I decided that someday, I wanted to try and run for office so I could fight to change that.

In 2014, I got involved in community advocacy for cyclists in Edmonton, putting together a social media campaign to highlight the humanity and stories cyclists in the city and then working with the Edmonton Bike Coalition to lobby City Council to fund the 102 Ave bike lane. I did media, made a presentation to council and MC’d a rally at City Hall and found I had a knack for public speaking. We were successful and then I had a bunch of free time, so I reached out and offered to volunteer with the Alberta NDP so I could learn about campaigning. They asked me to consider being a candidate and when I found out they needed one in my community, I decided to take a run at it, expecting I’d likely lose but have a good chance again in 2019. And, well, we know how that ended up.

Ultimately, I’m in politics and working to open it up to get others engaged because it’s something that has such profound effects on our everyday lives. There’s an incredible concentration of power in the hands of just a few people and some seem intent on making as difficult and unattractive as possible for others to engage with it because they want to exercise that power unquestioned and unopposed. If we want to have democracy, we need to be willing to work for it and I decided I need to make use of the skills and abilities I have to inspire people by bringing politics back down to the community level and using the systems available to support people who’ve been traditionally marginalized and shut out.

 

What are your signature achievements in the past year?

There’s are a few things I’ve been proud to have helped bring about in my first term:

  • Securing funding for the Winspear completion project – a big step forward for revitalization on 97 Street

  • Making Alberta the fourth province in Canada to officially recognize February as Black History Month and working to raise the visibility of Alberta’s black community in advocating for common concerns

  • Working with the Minister of Education to include some of the history of Alberta’s original black settlers in our Social Studies curriculum

  • Advocating to bring in the Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit to attract new investment and jobs in video game and screen-based entertainment products in Alberta

  • Holding consultations with stakeholders involved in all levels of Edmonton’s technology and innovation ecosystem to discuss how the Government of Alberta can help them continue to grow, thrive and diversify our local and provincial economy.

As a first generation Canadian, do you find that you are looked up to as a role model?

Yes. Shortly after my election, I began receiving invitations to a number of events with the many African and Caribbean communities around the city. And when I accepted and attended, I could see that it meant a lot to them to have an MLA come out (many told me they’d never had any join them before) and to see someone in power who shared culture and heritage with them. So I made a decision that one of my priorities as an MLA would be to spend as much time as I could with people in these communities – elders and youth – to support work they’ve been doing, help connect them with resources and encourage, inspire and empower them to build engagement and capacity for leadership.

I work hard to try to set an example of service in leadership – in being willing to take on difficult tasks and things others don’t want to do as well as in striving to be as honest, authentic and ethical as possible as I do.

 

In a nutshell, why should people vote for you?

I believe I’ve proven myself in my work over the last four years. I’ve worked hard to be present, visible and accessible in the communities I represent and to truly understand the local issues and concerns. I’ve been scrupulous in how I’ve handled the privileges and responsibilities of my position and focused on using them to benefit my constituents.

I’ve made it a priority to collaborate with individuals and organizations in my constituency and across the city to empower them to build their capacity and better understand how they can engage and work with the government. And I’ve striven to be as honest and transparent as possible while doing so.

And I’ve done all of this as part of a caucus and government dedicated to investing in our communities and the public services they depend on during one of the most difficult economic periods we’ve faced in a generation. I’m proud of the work we’ve done to support our energy industry, take action to address climate change, diversify our economy and support Albertans in need and want to ensure that positive change continues.

 

What would you say to encourage millennials to take part in the elections process? Why must we care about this election?

The upcoming provincial election is one of the most important our province has faced in years, particularly for young people. It will decide the direction of our province and the health of our economy for years to come.

I’m proud of the work our government has done to move Alberta forward after years of neglect under single-party conservative rule. The average age of MLAs dropped from 53 to 40. We elected more women than ever before as well as more people from a wider range of work and experience – doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers, lawyers, small-business owners and blue-collar workers.

We held true to our commitment to invest in the infrastructure and services Albertans depend on, funding our hospitals, schools and universities for growth and catching up on years of neglect in maintenance. We’ve built over 200 schools, moved forward with new health care facilities including some dedicated to mental health support and are building long-needed roads & bridges.

We’ve invested to open over 120 Early Learning Child Care centres capped at $25/day and introduced the Alberta Child Benefit to help lift families out of poverty. We’ve raised the minimum wage, indexed social supports to the cost of living and increased investments in affordable housing, supportive housing and shelters for women and others fleeing family violence.

We’re updating an education curriculum that has sections nearly 30 years out of date with updated science, information on coding & computing science, stronger lessons in math, the realities & challenges of climate change and a wider range of diverse history including indigenous culture and history and ongoing work towards reconciliation.

We’ve fought to help our energy and resource industries survive one of the worst & most prolonged price drops in a generation. We’ve led the fight to build a pipeline to tidewater so we can get the best price for our resources and have provided incentives to encourage industry to create jobs by refining more of our products right here in Alberta.

We’ve taken real action on climate change with a price on carbon that supports investments in green energy, new technology to reduce emissions from resource extraction and supports individuals, organizations, First Nations and municipalities to reduce their emissions and energy costs.

And we’ve created tax credits & incentives to support our growing innovation and technology industries – Alberta’s third-largest value-added industry – including investing in 3000 new post-secondary spaces in technology fields to train the workers the industry needs.

These are the things that are going to build an economy and system of public services for the future – that will make our province a strong, prosperous and inclusive place to live.  

Our opposition wants to undo all of that work, make cuts to key public services and give a tax break to Alberta’s wealthiest. This election is an opportunity for young people to ensure they have a government that will continue to move us forward.

Mental health? How big a deal is it in the black community?

Mental health is incredibly important and every bit as essential to take care of as physical health. We live in an increasingly complex world that puts a lot of pressure on us in so many ways – just the ordinary grind of life can wear you down. Then when you add in difficult or traumatic experiences and genetic factors that lead to specific conditions, it’s clear mental health is something that needs to be actively supported and protected.

I’ve been open about my own journey growing up in a very closed, fundamentalist religious environment that didn’t have any space to talk about mental health. Combined with other factors, it led me to have a breakdown after high school and into a years-long spiral that took a long time to work through and find a path out of. Ultimately, a lot of it was learning to let go of the stigma and judgement I had internalized and been willing to reach out, talk and accept help to learn how to healthily manage and express my emotions.

The black community is vulnerable on a lot of fronts for issues with mental health. Many still experience and struggle with prejudice and discrimination based on their ethnicity and/or faith. Many who’ve immigrated to Canada can face challenges getting financially established, finding their place and adapting to a new culture and community. That’s compounded for those who come here as refugees as they often have experienced some significant trauma in their home country and on their journey to come here. Young people often face their own set of challenges as all of those factors can exponentially compound the usual adolescent struggles to fit in and find their identity.

But while we can clearly see there are challenges and issues, there’s still a lot of work to do to end the stigma around mental health so that people are willing to reach out, ask for and accept help. The internal strength & resolve that have allowed black cultures and communities to be so resilient in the face of years of oppression and discrimination can also lead to a reticence to admit weakness. We have our own challenges with old, sometimes toxic, conceptions of masculinity and faith. Additionally, members of our community can face a multitude of challenges in looking for and finding help – barriers of language, understanding of faith and culture and accessibility.

We’re in the process of rebuilding healthy community structures of support that were intentionally disrupted and reconnecting with traditions and history that have been suppressed. But we need to build more capacity which requires a greater investment of resources and professional supports developed and delivered in a way that meets the unique needs of various black communities. And that, in turn, is going to requiring ongoing advocacy, education and training.

 

Immigrants who come into your constituency still find it hard to find relevant work, opportunities, what is your party doing about it?

That’s definitely an issue that came up often as we travelled the province to speak with communities about how we can best take action against racism and discrimination. We want all Albertans to have the opportunity to fully realize their potential and put their skills and experience to work in our communities. So we’ve put a couple of initiatives in motion:

      1. Expanding opportunities for recognition, mentorship & training

We’ve committed to starting a Foreign Qualification Recognition Fund and work with regulatory bodies to develop new tools that measure skills and experience, not only credentials, and make sure immigrants know about these changes to help them better prepare for work here.

We’re also beginning work to expand career mentorship programs to smaller cities. New immigrants often settle in smaller communities, but existing career mentorship programs are predominantly in Calgary and Edmonton. We’re working to make these programs available in smaller cities and conduct a pilot project involving professions with a high number of people trained internationally who are unable to become licensed to help identify rewarding career paths.

 

  1. Working to expand diversity in the public service

We are already removing biases in our hiring, and training public employees about Indigenous awareness. As an employer, we are actively looking at fairer ways to hire and to help our employees appreciate Alberta’s diversity.

 

We’ve also been working to expand diversity in representation on Alberta’s many agencies, boards and commissions. As part of that, we created a new website – boards.alberta.ca – which lists all current opportunities and openings for all Albertans to apply on.

 

We’re also forming Alberta’s first Anti-Racism Advisory Council – 25 individuals representing the diversity of communities in our province who’ll provide advice and guidance on these efforts and others to combat racism and promote inclusion and diversity.

 

  1. Programs and supports to help build capacity

 

We’re working to target grants and supports to help members of diverse communities build capacity to more fully participate in our economic, social and political systems.

 

Through the Ministry of the Status of Women, we provide grants to organizations helping women from diverse communities increase their economic security and build skills and experience to assume positions in community and political leadership.

 

We also worked with and funded BusinessLink to launch the Immigrant Entrepreneur Program which provides services, resources and mentorship to new Canadians looking to start their own business in Alberta. Resources are available in multiple languages and advice and mentorship are provided by individuals from the community with lived experience and cultural understanding.

 

 


 

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